A sophisticated production combining stylish visuals with tour de force performances from an adept cast. Wagner’s epic score fits MUPA
’s acoustic like a glove, rewarding players and audience alike with an irresistible clarity and immediacy.
To the uninitiated, Das Ring des Nibelungen, Wagner’s 15 hour opera cycle, is a breathtaking and daunting challenge. But, conductor Adam Fischer has a bold vision for Wagner in Budapest Opera Festival: to inspire a new generation of Wagner fans who might otherwise only have the attention span of short-form internet content. Fischer believes that the Festival’s four Ring cycle can do just that. And based on the first two operas, there’s little that makes me think it won’t succeed. Das Rheingold and Die Walküre turned out to be compelling productions.
Credit: Zsófia Pályi, Müpa Budapest
The ‘modern and traditional means’ Fischer refers to in the programme notes used to present Wagner’s epic drama aren’t so much cutting edge, as tried and tested. A wall of HD screens stand at the back of the elevated stage, on which video sequences appear and animated loops are projected. Away with expansive and overly designed stage sets, set designer (and director) Hartmut Schörghofer’s approach is pragmatic. Evocative imagery efficiently presented. The prelude to Rheingold – a musical depiction of the Rhine – depicts nature as it really is: dirty, sordid, and not somewhere any of us really wants to find ourselves.
Credit: János Posztós, Müpa Budapest
The versatility of the screens is powerful. Elsewhere in the operas, projected light creates a sub-life for Rheingold’s characters – silhouettes whose true identity and motivation is immediately revealed to the audience. A new sense of expectation (or foreboding) is created when a character steps up behind the screen before their appearance on stage. The effect is simultaneously delectable and terrifying same.
Dancers and puppets offer a beautiful and at times absorbing backdrop; during Die Walküre there are stunning real-life slow-motion vignettes created between Valkyries and silhouetted dancers. Similarly, scene 3 of Rheingold in Nibelheim, a swarm of Nibelung dwarves clamber across the multi-screen display, dropping from view like insects that have lost their grip. Such visual signposts, reflect the musical leitmotifs Wagner’s output is famed for: they aid, rather than complicate.
Even to the uninitiated, and those of us less able to understand written German than perhaps we’d previously thought we could, the direction, characterisation and score did much to maintain understanding. There wasn’t an English translation, but that wasn’t a problem, because at times it felt as though each character’s physicality was inextricably linked to the music, reacting but never reiterating. Not only that, there was a sense that watching Wagner’s opera for the first time was the musical equivalent of watching one of Shakespeare’s plays you’re unfamiliar with: trust the process; you will get it.
Of the performers, I’m picking out Erika Gal for an exquisite Wie alles war in Scene 4 of Rheingold. And in Die Walküre a jaw-dropping performance from Anja Kampe in the role of Sieglinde, who throughout the opera succeeded in sustaining the believable transition from put-upon to fraught and dishevelled in the space of five hours, both vocally and physically.
A heads-up too for Evelyn Herlitzius’s Brunnhilde who, at the beginning of Act 3, was as beguiling as she was maniacle. Of the two operas, there was only one weak moment: when the Valkyries battled to be heard over the orchestra during the most famous of musical numbers.
Credit: János Posztós, Müpa Budapest
The Wagner in Budapest Festival drew visitors from across Europe and further afield. It also surprised and delighted. Some might say it was a long way to go for The Ring. But soon after I realise I’m sold on it. Travelling a long way to hear something new might just be the right strategy to deploy.
Wagner in Budapest rang from 16 – 19 June 2016 at MUPA in Budapest.
Thoroughly Good Podcast episode 6 features an interview with Wagner in Budapest director Hartmut Schörghofer. The podcast is published on Wednesday 29 July 2016.